Feast Day: The Sixth Sunday After Easter
Readings: Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 14:23-29
“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”
In the second century a young slave girl, probably about twelve years old, was martyred for her faith in Jesus Christ in Lyons, France. Her name was Blandina and a letter from the Church in Lyons at the time, possibly written by St Irenaeus, tells us she withstood such torture that her executioners were overcome with exhaustion before she was finally thrown to the beasts.
If you were there in the stands of the arena that day taking in the sport of these public executions what would you have seen? You would have seen a young slave girl being torn apart by beasts. However, the Church in Lyons saw much more. The author of the letter writes that Blandina’s suffering and death was not in vain nor was it fruitless, “for the infinite mercy of Christ Jesus our Saviour shone in the world through [her] patience.” That is to say, what those with eyes to see witnessed was nothing less than the Passion of Jesus Christ himself shining through Blandina as she suffered.
Indeed, the letter continues on to say that, “the dead were by the living revived.” Now, here is the paradox: the “dead” mentioned here are those Christians who denied Christ in the arena and thus avoided martyrdom and went on living while the “living” are the martyrs who died. What the author of the letter is saying is this: the gospel of Christ shone through the witness of Blandina’s suffering-love even restoring to faith those who had failed to bear witness.
The question is how was the Church in Lyons and later Christians able to behold the suffering of a slave girl and see the glory of God? Indeed, we can ask a similar question of the apostles earlier: how were they able to look at Christ’s suffering and death and see not the defeat of a rabbi but the victory of God? And for both the answer is the same: their vision was transformed.
Immediately prior to our reading this morning Jesus said to his disciples: “those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them,” (14:21). In order to see by faith the veil must be pulled back, as it were, so that we no longer see just with our carnal eyes. This sermon is about how we come to see by faith. How we come to believe in Jesus Christ and how his suffering-love transforms us.
Our gospel reading this morning is taken from a section of John known as the farewell discourse so called because it is delivered by Jesus on the night of his betrayal and arrest. The next day in the narrative he will be crucified. Now, however, he is gathered away with his disciples. They have shared a meal, he has washed their feet, and now he looks to comfort them before his “going away.” And I think the key verse here is right there in the middle. Jesus says to the disciples, “The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”
At this point in John’s narrative the disciples do not understand. Which raises the question, when did they understand and believe? It wasn’t during Jesus’ earthly life because although they spent three years with him the synoptic gospels especially—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—make pretty clear their lack of comprehension. It wasn’t on the cross either for the disciples all fled. It must have been when they saw the empty tomb then. No, the gospels tell us that when they saw the empty tomb they thought the body had been stolen. An empty tomb proves nothing. Surely then it was when they saw the risen Jesus himself that they believe. Again, no. Mary thought he was the gardener and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus recognized him not. The disciples saw all of this and still did not understand which can only mean that faith does not depend on any of these things.
In order for the disciples to believe something had to happen in order for them to look at the weakness of Christ and to see God transforming that into strength. They had to be reminded. John has already made a few editorial comments gesturing in this direction that the careful reader will have picked up on. For example, back at the start of the gospel John tells the story of Jesus clearing the Temple and saying, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” (2:19). John tells us that Jesus was speaking about the temple of his body and then adds, “After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken,” (2:22; cf. 12:16).
The disciples of Jesus did not believe until after the crucifixion and resurrection when they were reminded and the veil was pulled back from their eyes so that they were able to look back on Jesus’ whole life and see God’s strength in the weakness of human flesh. Only then did they believe. And what we learn in our reading this morning is that this remembering is precisely what the job of the Holy Spirit is: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”
What is meant by “remembering”? One commentator writes that the Holy Spirit does more than simply remind the disciples of the precise words spoken by Jesus previously. Rather, the remembering that the Holy Spirit effects is a “living re-presentation” of Christ himself to them presently.
At the end of Luke’s account of the gospel two of the disciples are sad and dejected after the death of Jesus and are on their way to Emmaus. Suddenly the risen Jesus himself comes alongside of them and walks with them, “but their eyes were kept from recognizing him,” (24:16). Then the risen Jesus does two things. First, he opens the scriptures (the Old Testament) and, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself.” Then, “when he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” Only then were their eyes opened and the recognized him. (And then, curiously, he disappeared from their sight. We’ll examine that more closely next week for the feast of the Ascension)
Here is the important point: it wasn’t just the Passion of Christ that transformed the disciples. It was the Passion of Christ known according to the scriptures. This is what the apostles proclaimed. So when Jesus says that the Holy Spirit “will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you,” what he is saying is that the Holy Spirit will birth faith in us as our eyes are opened to see the crucified and risen Christ in the opening of Scripture and the breaking of bread.
The opening of Scripture and the breaking of bread: these are the two things that the apostles received from Christ and passed on to the Church (1 Cor 11:23; 15:3). And this is what we continue to do in church. Open the scriptures and break bread. Not because these are nice traditions but because this is how the Holy Spirit re-members the risen and living Jesus in our midst that we might see and believe.
To see and believe in this way is what it means to love Jesus Christ and to keep his word. For those who do, there is no longer any room for fear because in Jesus Christ God himself has made his home with us. To know this—to know the crucified Christ proclaimed by the apostles according to the Scriptures—is to know a peace that the world cannot give, that surpasses all understanding as we proclaim at the end of the liturgy. Now we can look at our own suffering—especially our suffering for the gospel as Blandina did—and see it transformed by the strength of God.
Our society seeks to avoid and eliminate suffering but we who follow the crucified Christ must endure suffering for that is precisely the way that the Holy Spirit transforms us into the image and likeness of God. And when we die, as we all will, then we become clay in the hands of God who will make us fully alive with his Son. May the Holy Spirit open our eyes that we might know the crucified and risen Christ, that suffering with him we may be made alive with him.
 Letter from the Churches of Lyons and Vienne to the Churches in Asia.
 Sir Edwyn Hoskyns, The Fourth Gospel (1940), 461.